Some crops can’t form fruit at all unless insects spread their pollen from flower to flower. That’s because the male part of the plant (the pollen) and the female part (the ovary that eventually becomes a fruit) are located in separate flowers and their pollen is too heavy and sticky to be carried by the wind. Tomatoes and peppers form some fruit without any help, but bring on the insects and you have more and larger fruit. Good pollination also keeps your produce from being misshapen so if you find some weirdly shaped produce in your garden, poor pollination could be the problem.
Bees are some of the world’s most important pollinators. There are 30,000 species of bee’s world wide with 4,000 or 5,000 found in North America. Bees pollinate 75% of the world’s plant crops followed by flies at 19% (not house flies, but other members of that order). Bats are responsible for pollinating 7%, wasps and beetles 5% each, birds 4%, butterflies check in at 2% and thrips, of all things, pollinate about 1%.
How do the plants get the insects to help? It’s all in the flowers! We think the blossoms in our gardens are for our pleasure, but the color and designs are actually like lights on a runway. The stripes, circles and rows of dots are nothing more than Mother Nature’s road map pointing the way to the pollen and nectar that the insects are after.
Honeybees are only 15% of the bees out there pollinating. The others are solitary bees that live on their own, not in an organized colony like the honeybee. One star of this solitary group is the mason bee. The orchard mason bee works fruit trees in early spring. Three or four female orchard mason bees can pollinate a full size apple tree, a job that would require hundreds of honeybees.
We can make houses for some of the solitary bees like the Mason bee or the alfalfa leaf cutter bee and attract them to our gardens. Squirt some glue into the bottom of a can and stand drinking straws inside. When the glue dries, you’re ready to hang it up. Or, drill ¼ to 5/8-inch holes into a block of wood. Hang the nests so the holes or straws are horizontal.
Randomly spraying insecticides, even botanicals, will not only kill the insects we find harmful but the pollinators, too. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is an exception because it only affects pests when they feed on sprayed plants, it doesn’t harm the beneficial insects. Gardening without using insecticides is the single most important thing we can do for our pollinators. Identify the pests you want to eradicate and know the timing and product to use for the best results.
As we enjoy beautiful flowers, they are attracting insects to pollinate our crops giving us food and viable seed for years to come.